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A Pine Bluff food pantry's participation in a U.S. Department of Agriculture food distribution program was terminated after a surprise inspection Aug. 21 revealed several violations.

Neighbor to Neighbor had a stockpile of food from The Emergency Food Assistance Program but was reporting every month that it had zero inventory, resulting in more food being shipped to it, according to a USDA food-loss report filed with the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

Food was "stacked to the ceiling," according to the report, citing an inspection done by Kati South, Arkansas Foodbank's USDA coordinator.

Neighbor to Neighbor also was cited for improper storage because boxes of food were sitting on the floor or against walls.

Jayne Ann Kita, chief program officer with the Arkansas Foodbank, said she contacted Jim Ponzini, the emergency food assistance program administrator with the Arkansas Department of Human Services, who told her to remove all of the program's food from Neighbor to Neighbor and terminate its participation in the program. That was done Aug. 23.

While taking the food from the Neighbor to Neighbor building, workers noticed cockroaches on some of the products, according to the report.

The Arkansas Department of Health was called to inspect the truckload of food from Neighbor to Neighbor and determined that $6,890 worth of food would have to be thrown away, said Tammy Coney, a Human Services coordinator for the emergency food assistance program.

The destroyed food included 180 cases of cheese, 59 cases of cranberry juice, 25 cases of raisins, 10 cases of dried figs and two cases of pinto beans.

Neighbor to Neighbor worked under the auspices of the Arkansas Foodbank and the Human Services Department to distribute the food under the federal program.

Neighbor to Neighbor continues to operate its soup kitchen and distribute Arkansas Foodbank pantry food, just not the emergency food assistance program's food, Kita said.

"We haven't completely pulled their membership," she said. "We're giving them time to do corrective action for us."

Kita said she had emailed Charlotte England, executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor, about the corrective actions.

England said she returned Monday from vacation and plans to respond to Kita's email. England said she wants Neighbor to Neighbor to be reinstated as Jefferson County's distributor of the USDA food.

"We want to correct anything that is a problem so we're working on this," she said. "This kind of blindsided me, to tell you the truth."

England said pallets have been brought in to elevate boxes of food off the floor, and she has pest control coming more often. She said the food pantry is in an old Lutheran church building surrounded by abandoned, boarded-up houses, so pest control can be a problem.

"We do the best we can," she said. "We had an exterminator out once a month, but now I have him coming out twice a month."

Kita said Jefferson County is one of the larger distributors of the program's food in Arkansas.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program "is a very strict program," she said. "It's government food. We have to make sure it is distributed appropriately."

Kita said Neighbor to Neighbor was inspected in October and everything was fine. Their next regular inspection was supposed to be in November. But the surprise inspection was done because "we heard things that were red flags for us," Kita said.

Besides food storage, pest control and monthly inventory problems, Neighbor to Neighbor wasn't having clients fill out cards when they picked up the program's food, Kita said.

"We could tell their inventory did not match their reporting," she said. "So I do know they were not distributing according to the requirements."

England said an employee stopped having clients fill out the cards, but she doesn't know why.

There also were allegations that the program's food was being distributed only to people 55 and older, instead of to all needy people who qualified, but Kita received conflicting reports about that.

"I couldn't prove it," she said. "I had different employees saying different things. I didn't see them when we were there turn anyone away."

Kita said the food bank has done some mobile distributions of food in Pine Bluff since Aug. 21, and nobody told her they had been turned away at Neighbor to Neighbor. She said the food bank distributed food to 214 households and 695 individuals in Pine Bluff on Thursday.

Kita said she believes the problems at Neighbor to Neighbor were due to human error.

"They've done a good job," she said. "They serve a lot of people. I believe it was human error, mistakes. I don't believe it was anything malicious."

On Sept. 11, Kristina Young, a former employee of Neighbor to Neighbor, filed a civil-rights complaint with the USDA against the food pantry, saying she was fired Aug. 23 for informing the Arkansas Foodbank about the violations.

Young said it was a civil rights violation to withhold distribution of The Emergency Food Assistance Program food to needy people younger than 55.

"I was fired within minutes of the announcement that the TEFAP program was being terminated," Young wrote on the form.

England said she fired Young for other reasons and did so before she knew Young had reported the violations.

"I didn't know she had told them anything when I fired her," England said.

England said she didn't have to give Young a reason for her termination, nor did she have to give one to a newspaper reporter.

On her civil-rights complaint, Young wrote that she would like to see England removed from her job and for the people of Jefferson County to be compensated for the food that hadn't been distributed correctly "for years."

Young worked for Neighbor to Neighbor for three months but said she knew from the records that, for several years, the emergency food assistance food had only been distributed to people 55 and older.

According to the food-loss report, Young told South that England had told her to put zeros on the monthly reports to the Arkansas Foodbank. On Monday, England said that wasn't true.

Neighbor to Neighbor received $240,841 in contributions and $9,555 in government grants in 2015, the most recent year for which a 990 form was available for tax-exempt organizations at guidestar.org.

The food pantry made $55,064 from a fish fry that year.

Net profit for 2015 was $16,916.

Neighbor to Neighbor was founded in 1984 "to provide assistance to indigents," according to the filings. The food pantry "provided financial aid for utilities, transportation, medical expenses, lodging, toys, school supplies, food and counsel to indigent or homeless people," according to its impact statement.

England said the food pantry is supported by 70 churches. She said its food kitchen provides about 3,000 meals a month.

"I'm proud of what's been done here all these years," she said. "I'm just so sorry this has happened, but it's being corrected."

Kita said she's potentially found a new emergency good assistance program distributor for Jefferson County, but she's waiting until she hears back from England regarding the corrective actions.

"I'm willing to hear what they have to say," Kita said. "From what I gather, they've fed a lot of hungry people for many years."

Metro on 09/26/2017

Print Headline: USDA program ousts PB pantry; Neighbor to Neighbor cited for inventory, storage violations

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